Fahamu (Oxford)

19 November 2009

Africa: Spotlight on Beijing +15

analysis

I want to bring the spotlight back to the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. The adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA) in 1995 ushered in a new era in terms of addressing women's empowerment and advancement. The inception of this platform carried with it a call for governments to accelerate their efforts towards addressing gender inequality.

In 2004, and in line with the BPFA, African member states reiterated their commitment to the provisions of the platform and to gender equality in general. African member states committed themselves to addressing challenges, as identified in the synthesis of the national progress reports on the implementation of the Dakar and Beijing Platforms for Action (2004) at the 7th African Women's Conference held in October 2004 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Since 1996, the Eastern African Sub-regional Support Initiative for Advancement of Women (EASSI) has sought to hold governments to account on the status of the implementation of policies, programmes and legislation in the area of women's empowerment and advancement in each of EASSI's member states of Burundi, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, Tanzania and Uganda.

For EASSI, as an organisation whose mandate emanated from the BPFAs, the anniversary of Beijing +15 affords an opportunity to assess countries according to the degree to which there is an enabling environment at the country level for supporting an effective implementation of the Beijing Platform of Action. The review process presents challenges of measuring not just progress, but accountability towards the various conventions, protocols, treaties and documents ratified by African member states. In my opinion, such an enabling environment for the implementation of the BPFA must include, inter alia, the following key areas:

- Institutional arrangements

- Commitment to CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women)

- Commitment to continental-level gender equality protocols

- Commitment to sub-regional level gender equality protocols

- Commitment to international-level gender equality protocols

- Adoption of a national gender policy

- Adoption of national action plans for United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security

- Commitment to poverty eradication, food security and climate change

- Commitment to the eradication of gender-based violence and the promotion of sexual and reproductive health rights

- Adoption of gender responsive budgeting as a mechanism

- Emerging issues for Africa

- Integration of gender equality principles into national development strategies (NDS) and poverty reduction strategy papers (PRSP).

We as Africans must embrace our own African-inspired protocols such as the African Union Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality (SDGE) of July 2004 and the African Women's Protocol, popularly known as the Maputo Protocol, of July 2003. I wish to take this opportunity to urge the countries that have not yet ratified the African Women's Protocol, namely Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea, to do so without further delay, and to implement the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality, which calls for 50-50 gender equality at all levels to do so. I wish to commend Rwanda as the world leader in gender equality. Last year, following the parliamentary and local government elections, Rwanda reached a level of 56 per cent women in decision-making positions in the Lower House of Parliament.

Social and economic indicators for developing countries consistently show that women bear the brunt of hardship in poor communities. At the same time, women are the key agents for an effective grassroots implementation of poverty reduction programmes and economic regeneration. The efforts of our African and other developing countries to modernise discriminatory laws and galvanise women's participation can be frustrated by the deep-rooted cultural barriers that so often run in parallel with poverty.

The belief that gender perspectives should inform all development strategies is founded on accumulating evidence that a fairer stake in society for women reduces poverty, generates economic activity and improves the quality of health and productivity of the family unit.

WOMEN'S RIGHTS

The pursuit of equality for women is of course built on deeper foundations than utilitarian economics. This commitment came in the shape of the Convention to Eliminate all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979. It is worth noting that this year marks 30 years since the adoption of CEDAW. CEDAW has been described as a bill of rights for women; it spells out the areas in which women experience discrimination and commits countries to amend their laws, construct national gender policies and create institutions to deliver them. The most solid subsequent endorsement of CEDAW came at the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in September 1995, at which governments committed themselves to the Beijing Platform for Action, a detailed template for the eradication of discrimination and poverty.

This generally positive global commitment to women's rights has not been reflected in the rate of progress. Ineffective enforcement of legislation is the most common constraint, as countries are eager to be listed as signatories. Implementation is a different matter altogether.

WOMEN'S EQUALITY

Cultural traditions in developing countries create the most stubborn obstacle to the essential steps towards women's equality. The belief that girls should work in the home and in the fields rather than go to school and the presumption that a woman acquires no right to property on marriage are deeply entrenched in many societies. The disempowerment of women is often reinforced in a country's laws; for example, many countries in sub-Saharan Africa are in various stages of amending laws which prevent women from gaining access to land and property. The HIV/AIDS crisis has accelerated these pressures, given that over 30 per cent of households in southern Africa are now headed by women, few of whom can claim ownership rights.

WOMEN'S LIVELIHOODS

The burden of unpaid domestic work for women is particularly acute in developing countries. Poverty greatly compounds the demands of simple household tasks that would otherwise be minimal. In assessing progress in women's opportunities for non-agricultural work, the MDG (millennium development goals) report for 2008 estimates that two-thirds of women in developing countries find themselves in vulnerable piecework such as farming or in unpaid household tasks.

This predominant role in tending crops and livestock, as well as coping with large extended families, places women in the front line against the connected global crises of food security and climate change. Given their roles as managers, women bear more pressure to provide for the family, yet their access to already scarce resources is further complicated by the intersectionality of their gender with class, age, ethnicity and other social categories. Natural resource management is also dominated by men, with limited participation by women. Global networks working on climate change are likewise male-dominated. In addition, the lack of sex-disaggregated data has worked against surfacing and addressing women's concerns and needs.

Rising food prices will stretch the ingenuity of poor households, which will simultaneously lack awareness and the resources necessary to adapt traditional farming methods to changing weather patterns.

One response to climate change could be the adaptation or the capacity of social actors to shift livelihood strategies and develop support systems that are resilient enough to assist vulnerable people to respond to climate change.

VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN

HIV-prevention programmes are also now more aware of the risks arising from domestic violence against women, one of the most brutal consequences of the economic, social, political and cultural inequalities that exist between the sexes. Yet strong concerns voiced by development agencies and policy-makers have emerged only in relatively recent years. There is no mention of the subject in CEDAW, apart from a brief reference to human trafficking. In launching his new 2008 campaign, Unite to End Violence Against Women, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon observed that 'at least one out of every three women is likely to be beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime.'

While rich countries are by no means free of violence against women, the problems - which range from domestic violence to honour killings - are perceived to be more serious in developing countries. Attitudes in society need to change so that women can be more forthcoming in disclosing their problems. Legislation also has a part to play.

Legislation is also gradually being introduced in African countries where deep-rooted tradition accounts for the widespread practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), endangering perhaps as many as 3 million girls each year. Trafficking of women for sex and other services is illegal, but authorities are struggling to keep up with the combination of crime syndicates and poverty which drive the trade.

Women suffer terribly in war zones, especially those wars in which the world's media take only a token interest. The incidence of rape in Darfur, the DR Congo, northern Uganda and Sierra Leone may never be known, let alone carry any hope of accountability.

WOMEN'S VOICES

Principles of equality and empowerment lie behind the encouragement of greater representation of women in all levels of government. Women are more likely than men to keep sight of the human dimension in problem-solving and to favour a peaceful resolution of conflict. Indeed, the most interesting developments in women's political participation occur in post-conflict countries whose constitutions have been torn up and rewritten. The Rwandan parliament is believed to have the highest representation of women in the world with over 56 per cent. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa's first female president, has been elected in Liberia, a country torn apart by conflict and corruption.

The overall picture is, however, less encouraging, with only eight women among 192 heads of government as of January 2008. Despite quotas in place in over 40 countries, the average women's representation in national parliaments remains barely over 15 per cent.

In conclusion, I call upon all governments to:

- Renew commitments to gender equality, equity and the empowerment of women

- Demonstrate through analysis and up-to-date data the centrality of gender equality and equity in the national development plans, national vision plans, PRSPs, MDGs, as well as policies and programmes of development

- Mainstream gender analysis into economics and involve gender experts in the formulation of macroeconomic policies, so that economic policies support women's paid activities in the subsistence and the care economies

- Engender indicators for monitoring the impact of poverty-reduction programmes and measures and the MDG targets on poverty

- Replicate and implement the AU 50-50 gender parity principle at all levels of national, sub-regional and regional governance, whereby women's access to elected positions (municipal and parliamentary) is supported

- Promote for partnership with government, NGOs, the private sector and development partners to implement BPFAs.

Finally, I would like to state that inequality between women and men is increasingly seen as a serious development constraint and a hindrance to the achievement of development. There is growing awareness of the need to ensure the full and equal participation of women as well as men at every level of decision-making in local, national, regional and global fora if the global goals established in the Beijing and Dakar Platforms for Action[1] and Millennium Declaration are to be achieved. There are significant development dividends from women's agency and empowerment and from more effective partnerships between women and men in different spheres of life, such as in government, the private sector and in non-governmental organisations.

The transformative agenda and the human rights discourse of the Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA) should not be displaced or made diminutive as a benchmark in progress reports, especially a decade and a half after the 1995 World Conference on Women which first yielded the BPFA.

Marren Akatsa-Bukachi is the executive director of the Eastern African Sub-regional Support Initiative for Advancement of Women (EASSI). The extracts from the OneWorld.net Gender guide on women's rights, women's equality, women's livelihoods, violence against women and women's voices in the developing world are reproduced with the kind permission of OneWorld.net Guides.

NOTE

[1] Statement by Ms Carolyn Hannan, director, Division for the Advancement of Women and officer in charge of the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

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